Review of: her.

by Lynn on September 7, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. E., Toronto, Ont. Produced by zippysaid Productions. Opened, Sept. 6. Plays until Sept. 10, 2023.

Written and performed by Deborah Shaw

Directed by David Agro

Music composed by Beverly Lewis

A play about keeping secrets at all costs and finally having to face the truth and its consequences.

The Story. Toronto, 1954. Ilsa is hosting an afternoon of coffee, pastries and gossip with her good friend Helga who brings her great-nephew Gunter along. Gunter is visiting from Boston where he is studying history. Matters become prickly when Gunter starts asking Ilsa about stories he’s heard about Ilsa’s war time past, stories she has not told anyone; stories she wants to keep secret. Finding the truth becomes a game of cat and mouse.

The Production. The set for her. is elegant and spare. There is an empty frame hanging on the wall (we imagine a painting). There are black chairs for guests; a table with four beautiful tea cups and saucers ready for guests as well.

Ilsa (Deborah Shaw) appears carrying a silver tea service and later an arrangement of pastries. Ilsa is fastidious looking; perfectly dressed for the time in a dress and simple heels. Her hair is done up with a pearl hair clip holding the hair in place. When she goes to answer the door Deborah Shaw as Ilsa gives herself one smooth pass of her hand over her perfect hair, as she goes into the wings, ready to greet her guests.

Ilsa’s voice is bright and cheerful in greeting her guests, with just a touch of an accent, suggesting she grew up in Europe (her name suggests Germany, but we find that out later). Helga and Gunter are ushered into the room. This is all suggested—there are no other actors playing these parts. Ilsa is not imagining these characters, it’s a performance choice of Deborah Shaw as Ilsa and director David Agro. In a clever creation of the dialogue we ‘hear’ what her guests are asking her by how Ilsa answers, all performed with subtlety and nuance by Deborah Shaw. She pours coffee—a bit into each cup. She offers pastries. Elsa is a baker and is very proud of her pastries.

When the conversation is pleasant, the smile is ever present, gracious. When Gunter asks a difficult question Deborah Shaw’s face drops, becomes glacial, as she tries to deflect the question. David Agro’s direction is clear yet understated.

Over the course of the hour play we hear what happened to Ilsa, her family and the family bakery in Germany; her marriage, her three children, the secrets, the rumors that arose in that small German town and what Ilsa was determined to hide.  The story unfolds slowly and compellingly.    

Comment. It’s always good to see theatre so full of conviction and tenacity as the production of her. is. But I have some concerns and a quibble. One concern is that we are told of various rumors that haunted Ilsa while we learn the whole truth of what happened to her and her family. What we don’t know is what the rumors were. Did they pertain to one incident in her life or her real identity. We don’t know and it would strengthen the play if we did. She grew up in a small town in Germany and someone knew the truth about her—are we to assume no one else knew? Another concern is that there was a shattering incident in Ilsa’s family in 1944. What happened to her as a result? (without giving too much away)…We know some of ‘what’ happened. We need clarification of ‘how’ that happened after the shattering incident.

The quibble, if the characters that Ilsa is talking to are not there, but assumed to be there, why does there have to be anything in the tea pot to pour into the cups. Why can’t that be imagined too. Making the production even more spare than it is, simplifies matters. I’m glad I saw her.

zippysaid Productions presents:

Opened: Sept. 6, 2023.

Closes: Sept. 10, 2023.

Running time: 60 minutes approx. (no intermission)

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1 Bryan Finlay September 12, 2023 at 9:35 am

I understand your comment and quibble ….But I thought the performance by the single actor was exceptional… How she carried the story by herself for a full hour I found remarkable… I would suggest acting at its best…